First World Third Class and Other Tales of the Global Mix

 

First World Third Class and Other Tales of the Global Mix
Regina Rheda
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005, 304 pp., $24.95 paper

First World Third Class and Other Tales of the Global Mix serves as a Regina Rheda reader, introducing this contemporary Brazilian writer to an English-speaking audience. After an initial career in filmmaking, Rheda has been writing fiction for the past ten years, and the book includes her many short stories and a novel. It situates Brazil beyond its continent-size borders, capturing its complexities within a transnational context. Rheda, who has been both citizen and expatriate, explores Brazil through multiple lenses, from the inside out.

The first set of eight short stories, "Stories from the Copan Building," is set in the author's native city of Sao Paulo, Brazil's sprawling urban center. Originally published in 1994, the stories received Brazil's National Book Award, the Jabuti Prize. The disparate characters all live in the 1957 undulating high-rise designed by Modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer. The insularity of the interconnected narratives imparts an intentional, almost claustrophobic, feeling to the whole. The Copan Building is now in a state of decay, far from the architect's lofty blueprints for luxury accommodations. As such, it represents a microcosm of the city's--even the whole country's--urban decay. The stories show the creative, sometimes chilling, ways the people cope with modern-day challenges.

 

"Dry Spell" recounts how residents ingeniously deal with a temporary loss of water in the building, a situation that stands for chronic infrastructural and socioeconomic ills on a larger scale. When water is finally restored, the tenants discover that they will be required to pay an exorbitant hike in fees, an outcome that ironically mirrors governmental policies at the national level. In other stories, interpersonal tussles abound, exemplifying Brazil's diverse population and the profound disparities among them. In the powerful opening story--provocatively titled "The Neighbor from Hell"--a hyper-clean elderly matron, Mrs. Albuquerque, is at odds with her untidy neighbor, a playwright who once denounced the dictatorship. Mrs. Albuquerque's solution to the one-sided dispute is reminiscent of the cold-blooded tactics of the former authoritarian regime she still defends. In "Girlfriends,â€Â two rivals come to dramatic ends rather than agree on conciliatory measures.

 

Crime, violence, and individuals who simply eschew tradition make their appearance in surprising, humor-tinged encounters among residents: an innocent cat caregiver becomes a link in a drug-trafficking incident in "The Cat Girl"; a Jesus fanatic becomes a spokesperson for discrimination and religious divisiveness in "The Woman in White." In "The Voyeuse" and "The Prostitute," married women experiment with transgressive forms of behavior, sanctioned by their husbands. Fluttering like a saintly spirit over the daily problems of the crumbling building is the ever-dutiful custodian who, despite never having received his overdue promotion to superintendent, goes about performing his chores in the afterlife, in "The Ghost." Despite the captivating urban-based originality of these stories, the English translations are somewhat stilted. This fault becomes even more evident in contrast to the juiciness of First World Third Class, the novel that follows them, whose translation, by a different translator, is flawless.

First World Third Class is, appropriately, the volume's centerpiece. In its irreverent narrative, the antihero Rita Setemiglia learns to navigate the shifting sands of identity as a tourist-turned-immigrant, first in London and then in rural Italy. Rita's letters to her girlfriends back home periodically interrupt the third-person narration, interjecting into this female-centered traveler's tale a self-indulgent voice that teeters between daring and despair. One of the most evocative descriptions in the novel reproduces Rita's first full day in London with remarkable authenticity, as dizzying jet-lag and heavy homesickness mix with her sassy spirit of adventure and desire. The day ends at a pub, where a string of good-looking men approach the forlorn, lovesick Rita, only to ask if they may remove the empty chair at her table. This tragicomic episode is symptomatic of what follows: the inevitable clash between callous first-world determinism and not-so-innocent, third-world ingenuity and opportunism. Throughout, Rita searches for stable employment and love.


Rita's international adventures consist of a series of risks and inevitable missteps that typify the vulnerabilities experienced by immigrants the world over. From the moment she turns her back on a stubbornly bureaucratic Brazil, seeking what she believes will be a better life in Europe (and reclaiming, at great cost, her Italian heritage), Rita sets herself up for the quicksands of immigration, the worst trait of which is unavoidable dependency on, and humiliation by, the Powers That Be.

 

In London, Rita finds work as an au pair, a precarious job that brings her close to sexual predation, as she seduces her employers' adolescent son (a role that, as Christopher Dunn suggests in his introduction to the book, recasts Brazil's slave-holding rituals of sexual initiation): It grows dark. The fireworks light up the sky. The downpour is tinged with comets and colored stars, fishes dancing in the sky. The lake melts into brilliant reflections, a luminous fountain. Underneath the blanket,
Rita explores Brian's sex in the palm of her hand.

 

Although she swings between naïveté and a conniving and savvy gustiness, ultimately Rita succumbs to the first world's upper hand, which exploits and exoticizes its entrapped third-world prey. Rita's eventual flight to Italy brings about a dramatic change in scenery, and with it, new employment and interpersonal challenges. By placing her fate in the hands of ineffectual and sometimes devious relatives, Rita perpetuates her transatlantic trials and tribulations. After the lighthearted tone of the novel--the tripartite plot of which carries Rita full circle back to her country of origin--the volume's final trio of tales address a complex web of global realities: environmental degradation, immigration inequities, animal abuse, labor exploitation, political corruption, and gender oppression. Rheda's recent stories harshly criticize first-world antifeminism and assumptions of superiority. "The Enchanted Princess" reverses the fairy tale of a poor (that is, Brazilian) young woman who is rescued by a rich (that is, European) professor and whisked off to his castle in Bavaria. Henrique, a Brazilian graduate student, mediates the miscommunications between Priscilla, a Rio prostitute adamant about retaining her position, and the tenacious German music professor who wishes to "save" her. As interpreter, Henrique represents the link between two intersecting, yet ultimately divergent, worlds. Priscilla's unwavering confidence in her Brazilian identity contrasts with Rita's foiled attempts at European assimilation. "The Sanctuary" and "The Front" take Rheda's criticism of the US to greater depths. (Interestingly, in a linguistic about-face that reflects Rheda's current residency in the US, "The Front" was originally written in English and subsequently translated into Portuguese.) "The Sanctuary" recounts the differing experiences of two illegal immigrants--Juan from Mexico and João from Brazil--as they labor in a US sanctuary for abused farm animals and wrestle with their own moral values. "The Front" focuses on a "remote little town" in the Amazon, "populated by vanishing tribes of neglected natives and infected by plagues such as malaria, corrupt politicians, and plant, animal, and mineral smugglers from all over the planet." The aim of both narratives--in a curious blend of humor and heavy-handed critique typical of Rheda's work--is to reveal a lack of social consciousness and understanding in a mixed-up global world unconcerned for ethics or human rights.

 

Marguerite Itamar Harrison is assistant professor of Portuguese and Brazilian studies at Smith College. She has published essays on Brazilian literature and visual culture--with a critical eye toward issues of gender, race, and social class--in scholarly journals such as Brasil/Brazil, Lusotopie, Luso-Brazilian Review, and Latin American Literary Review.

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